Exploring Duffield & Wirksworth on the Ecclesbourne Valley Line, Derbyshire
The restoration of the Ecclesbourne Valley Line will bring new visitors to this part of Derbyshire. Ashley Franklin explores both ends of the line
The Ecclesbourne Valley Railway (EVR) contributed greatly to the local economy when Wirksworth was a centre for lead mining and limestone quarrying, although ironically it carries the nickname of ‘The Milk & Honey Line’ through the transportation of agricultural produce in its later years of freight services.
History is now being repeated. The EVR reckons that in the last five years, following the first passenger service to Ravenstor and the opening of the line to Idridgehay, the local economy has been boosted by around �� million. There has been a surge of interest in the recent re-opening of the line between Wirksworth and Duffield, with visitors from home and abroad relishing the opportunity to re-live the romance of the steam era or simply enjoy the Ecclesbourne Valley from a new perspective. It’s also provided welcome tourist trade for the town and village at either end of the Milk and Honey Line.
Is it then a Land of Milk and Honey that awaits those visitors? Well, the town is known as the ‘Gem of the Peak’ and the village has a name that means ‘a woodland clearing frequented by doves’, so maybe it is!
Derek Cook of Duffield Community Association has enterprisingly prepared for an influx of visitors in printing a ‘Welcome to Duffield’ leaflet. It informs you, for instance, that this handsome village boasts four pubs and four caf�s, all within short walking distance of the station. There are four restaurants open in the evening – all Indian – though if you decide to stay overnight in the village, accommodation is limited. However, as the leaflet also tells you, there is an extensive network of footpaths up into the hills that surround Duffield, one of which will take you to the neighbouring Peakland stone villages of Milford and Makeney. Here, the Makeney Hall Hotel will cater for those who prefer � la carte menus and plumped pillows while the King William pub will appeal if you fancy a pork pie with a pint and a modest bed to lay your head.
However, most train travellers will be day trippers desirous simply of a relaxing hour or two dining in Duffield, followed by a casual, calorie-shedding stroll. The nearest caf� to the station is Godfrey’s Coffee House, open for breakfast through to evening meal. ‘Railway enthusiasts are such passionate people,’ reports Godfrey’s manager Greg Broadbent, ‘and when they’re not talking trains, they are saying how much they like Duffield. We love them!’ Other places of refreshment include: the White Hart, a pub/restaurant with classy decor and highly reputable cuisine, the Bridge Inn which offers an extensive two-for-one menu; or, if you prefer a quick pancake or pastry, there is there..., a quaint little snackerie.
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Directly opposite Godfrey’s, your eye is immediately drawn to a display of high quality art in the Duffield Art Gallery. Owner James Preston has resourcefully taken in a series of evocative paintings by Derbyshire railway artist Colin Wright and is currently showcasing the latest landscape paintings of his feted relatives James, Rex and Mark Preston, along with astonishing photo-realist still life paintings by Brian Davies. Regularly featured artists include Andrew Macara and, resident to Duffield, abstract landscape painter Colin Halliday and photo artist Paul O’Flanagan.
If you want to browse further among the nearby shops, there is a delightful new designer florist and gift boutique, The Greenery where, according to owner Louise Endsor, ‘business is blooming’. The giftware is chic and fun, different and unique. There is another high-class florists called Rosehips where owner Nicola Roberts goes the extra mile to source unusual and exotic blooms. You’ll also find giftware in the deli A Lot to Swallow. If your love of transport extends to sports cars, you can gaze around Benz Bavarian’s classy showroom.
Duffield’s Domesday name ‘Duelle’ means ‘the place at the woodland clearing frequented by doves’. You may not see a dove these days but if you wander around the part of the 40-acre Eyes Meadow that is the Millennium Meadow, you may – if you’re lucky - spot a Canada goose or even a cormorant. More likely you’ll catch blue tits in the box on the pine stump and goldfinches, long-tailed tits, greenfinches and chaffinches, all of which have colonised the copses. Look skywards for buzzards, swifts, swallows and house martins or downwards for mallards and coots rearing their broods on the ponds. This thriving, award-winning natural history haven is also home to an impressive array of insects, mammals, 3,000 wild flowers, 2,000 native trees and 17 types of grasses. ‘Tt’s a wonderful oasis of calm and beauty,’ says Millennium Meadows’ Chair Di Hancock.
The River Derwent is close by while in the summer you can take in a cricket match adjacent to the Meadow with the eye-gladdening backdrop of Duffield Bank. For a view from view higher up, it’s worth the walk to an old Duffield landmark, Castle Hill, where the National Trust recently completed some work. There are now stone steps up to a wooded walkway where trees have been removed to open up a lovely view across the valley. Sadly, there is no trace left of the castle that was as large and impressive as any in the kingdom, but the NT promises more improvements to Castle Hill, including ways of ‘telling the story of this fascinating site.’
Alight from the train at Wirksworth Station and you might decide to spend your whole time there just soaking up the nostalgic atmosphere. You can picnic on the platform or have a bite to eat in a charming buffet car, a converted railway carriage. There’s also a display of model railway layouts and the volunteers on duty are freindly, enthusiastic and willing to chat. While I stood on the platform, Leigh Gration proudly showed me a photo album depicting the volunteers’ remarkable conversion of a disused carriage to its former glory.
You can get on other trains, too: a short ride on a narrow gauge railway takes you through the big trains to a waterfall; and you can experience a 1 in 27 incline as an engine hauls you up to Ravenstor. Here, you can take in yet another railway – the Steeple Grange narrow gauge. Ravenstor is also your passage to the High Peak Trail, Black Rocks Picnic Area, Middleton Top Visitor Centre and the National Stone Centre, where you can discover Wirksworth’s quarrying past, view the ‘Story of Stone’ and browse through ‘the best rock and mineral shop in the Midlands’.
To discover all of Wirksworth’s past, go see the superbly well-stocked Heritage Centre, worth a morning or afternoon visit on its own. Indeed, Wirksworth is worth numerous visits. The Civic Society’s free guide details 19 separate attractions including some elegant buildings like the imposing Georgian house, 15 Market Place, and the Town Hall. The fact that these make Wirksworth the ‘Gem of the Peak’ is, ironically, because of the town’s grimy lead mining past. As there was little incentive to restore the grubby buildings, they remained untouched. Exemplary regeneration in the 1980s made Wirksworth architecturally unspoilt.
As you walk from the station to the town’s centre, the first caf� is May’s Tea Rooms, run for the last 16 years by May and Max Greatorex. Many more refreshment places come into view, like Peli Deli, a delicatessen and coffee bar with a cheese board of over 40 varieties and paintings on the walls to reflect the town’s envied reputation as a hotbed of art. You can also drink and dine at lunchtime at Le Mistral which has brought a wind of change to Wirksworth with its fine French cuisine. It’s award-winning, too: 19 year-old Pierce O’Conner recently won the Young Chef of the Year prize at Derbyshire’s Excel Tourism Awards.
There are singular shops including four antique stores, the delightfully-named traditional sweet shop Scrum Diddly Umptious, and Marsden’s chock-filled gift shop, a former hardware store that sports the sign Nails No More. New to Wirksworth is Seymour Interiors, run by Christine Maclean and son Duncan. Formerly at Cromford Mill, they are relishing their bigger, brighter new premises on the handsome site of the Old Vaults inn, enabling them to display a wider range of furniture and accessories along with their extensive fabrics, wallpaper and bespoke Farrow & Ball paints.
If you fancy strolling rather than browsing, you can take a hearty walk up into The Puzzle Gardens, a maze of picturesque higgledy-piggledy houses which brought Prince Charles to call the town ‘Quirksworth’. A resident likened it to ‘Polperro without the sea’. Roy Christian described the grandiose cathedral-style precinct of St Mary’s church as having ‘the atmosphere of Barchester or Cranford’, while if you venture into either the Wheatsheaf or Malt Shovel pubs, you can recreate a little French atmosphere by playing boules.
This led me to think that with the town re-linked to Duffield and thence the main line to London, one can now travel all the way from Wirksworth to Paris, though given the delights of Wirksworth – at the very least its splendid arts festival – maybe both Londoners and Parisians should be encouraged take the train to here!
THE STEAM EXPERIENCENigel Cowey, his partner Jo and four of their friends were amongst the first passengers on the newly-restored line. As a practitioner of alternative medicine (an acupuncturist), Nigel found the whole experience suitably therapeutic...
‘As soon as we boarded the train, it felt like we had stepped into the past. There was something reassuringly peaceful and calming about the atmosphere in the carriage, as the stress and strains of the modern day business world became distant memories. The pace of life slowed down to match the gentle rhythmic pulse of the wagons rolling over the rails. Thoughts of mobile phones and the internet disappeared like wisps of steam from the mighty engine.
As I watched the guard wave his green flag and heard the whistled response from the engine driver to start the journey, I felt I had returned to a world where people would take the time to speak to each other. As the many passers-by stood watching and waving as this awesome engine moved gracefully through the countryside, I also came to understand how these marvellous machines had brought whole communities together.
Contemplating this incredible feat of engineering brought me to glimpse a time of inspirational ingenuity, when the Industrial Revolution gave birth to an empire which had spanned the four corners of the world. As a Five Element Acupuncture practitioner I was reminded of the phrase ‘Shen Dao’ which is used to describe the essence of a particular acupuncture point. Loosely translated it means ‘way of the spirit’. For those who had put their time, effort, and energy into this prodigious venture, it exemplified its meaning. By following the path of their heart, they had in some ways fulfilled a destiny: the restoration of this wonderful railway line.’
To book a trip on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, visit www.e-v-r.com or call 01629 823076. Special events when the Duffield line will be in operation with steam trains are: June 25/26 Duffield Carnival Open Days; July 2/3 Classic Transport Event; July 23/24 Wirksworth Bus Event; August 13/14 Home Fleet event; August 27 to 29 Summer Bank Holiday Open Days; September 10/11 Wirksworth Festival Open Days.